Skip to main content

Depression in seniors can affect memory

October 8, 2013

Depression does not receive as much attention as other healthy aging issues facing seniors, such as Alzheimer's disease, but it affects a large portion of the retired population. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 6.5 million Americans 65 and older experience symptoms of depression. Now, a new study from Brigham Young University suggests that depression can have a significant impact on memory, according to findings published in Behavioral Brain Research.

Understanding the link
While scientists believe there is a relationship between memory and depression, they have been unable to determine why the link exists in the first place. To gain a better understanding of the relationship, researchers relied on a computer-assisted memory test that asked participants to note whether they had seen an object before, had seen something similar or whether the object was completely new. The team found that subjects with depression performed worse when shown an object similar to one they had seen before. Scientists say they may have a clearer picture of why depression hinders memory.

"There are two areas in your brain where you grow new brain cells," said Brock Kirwan, a psychology and neuroscience professor at BYU. "One is the hippocampus, which is involved in memory. It turns out that this growth is decreased in cases of depression."

Combating depression
Whether it is due to the death of a loved one, limited mobility or loss of motivation after leaving the workforce, seniors are often at a greater risk of depression than their younger counterparts. However, there are a number of steps older adults can take to stave off the progression of depressive symptoms. Exercise and physical activity are two of the best ways for seniors to reduce symptoms of depression, according to a landmark study from Duke University Medical Center. Researchers looked at more than 150 patients over 50 with depression and found that those who followed an exercise regimen improved more than those who took medication. 

Exercise is not the only way for seniors to alleviate symptoms of depression. Older adults can also take action by staying socially engaged, PsychCentral notes. Everything from continuing education to volunteering can offer considerable positive benefits.